by Jodie Cain Smith (Army)
I begin reading many books, but I don’t finish many books. In fact, the bookshelf in my office is crammed full of abandoned books. Why, you ask? Why would a woman who makes her living with words stop reading? Well, when I am left to be nothing but a curious reader searching for a compelling story, I look for questions. When I find no questions in the story or characters or, disappointingly, my questions are answered too easily, I stop reading and move on to the next book in my stack. Thankfully, Kathleen Rodgers offers up questions aplenty and quickly in her latest, Johnnie Come Lately; questions that aren’t fully answered until the last page. Oh yeah, I finished this one. I had no choice.
In fact, I only had to meet teenage Johnnie in the prologue to be sucked into her story and the multitude of questions the few pages offered. Immediately, I had to know who this young woman was, why her mother ran off, what was the root cause of Johnnie’s bulimia, did she ever recover, and how on earth did her Uncle Johnny and boyfriend Clovis die? I turned the page to Chapter One searching for answers, but was thrust into the world of a forty-three-year-old version of Johnny Kitchen, married woman and mother of three.
Whoa, whoa, whoa! Stop! What about the teenager from the prologue and the decades in between? I had to know, so I was relieved to discover that Kathleen Rodgers is clever. Using a journaling device unlike others I have read, the details of Johnnie Kitchen’s life unfolded in haunting language on the pages. In her journal, Johnnie wrote letters to herself, her adult self and teenage self, complete strangers, and the ghosts of her past, pleading with them to reveal their true purpose in her life, to forgive her past transgressions, and to soothe her grief for losses she can never recover.
Within the pages of Johnnie Come Lately, I discovered an unlikely optimism, a tale of hope. Thank goodness! As a military spouse, I am turned off by weakness and incompetence. I want everyone, especially the women in my life, to know their inner strength and use it. I have no use for whining or pessimism or a defeatist attitude. Yes, I have high expectations, but Johnnie fulfilled those expectations.
I must admit I was afraid Johnnie Kitchen was going to drown in her own faults and shortcomings, but I was wrong. What I found in her, despite her many failings, were optimism and faith that would keep her moving forward, fighting her inner demons, and searching for answers to her many questions. Her eternal hope was especially present when the problems in her marriage, challenges faced and posed by her children, and secrets of the past would be easier dealt with by not dealing with them at all. Johnnie Kitchen, this woman with so many secrets to hide, becomes the bravest of all Rodgers’ characters by exposing herself and challenging the shortcomings in those she loves the most.
By the end of the novel, Johnnie Kitchen had become my friend, one that I am sad to be without now that Johnnie Come Lately is off my nightstand and back on my shelf, every word devoured.
Rodgers, Kathleen M. Johnnie Come Lately. Camel Press, 2015.
About the reviewer:
Jodie Cain Smith, an Army spouse and author, spent her childhood exploring the shores of Mobile Bay with her three siblings. As a teen in Mobile, AL, Jodie’s grandmother told her the gripping story of an adolescence spent in 1930’s rural Alabama, the rumors surrounding her parents, and the murder trial that would alter her life. The tale took root in Jodie’s memory until at last it became The Woods at Barlow Bend, her debut novel to be released November 19, 2014 by Deer Hawk Publications.
While attending the University of South Alabama, where Jodie earned a BFA in Theatre Arts, she met her husband Jay. They began their life on the Army road in 2001 and have not stopped moving since. As an Army Wife, she has lived in six different states from the extreme heat of Texas to the blizzards of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where she earned a MAE in School Counseling at Northern Michigan University.
When she is not living in the fictional worlds she creates via her laptop, Jodie can be found onstage and in the studio working as an actress and teaching artist.
Jodie Cain Smith’s short stories, feature articles, and columns have appeared in The Petigru Review, Chicken Soup for the Military Spouse’s Soul, The Savannah Morning News, and the Fort Hood Sentinel.